WA’s lockdown meant physical isolation, but the subsequent plethora of online performances and activities has allowed many to engage in arts experiences that might otherwise be out of reach. Claire Trolio reflects on the doors that have been opened by the pandemic.
When our local restaurants, shops and venues began closing back in March, one thing I knew was that many beloved small businesses and organisations were going to be hit hard. I dreaded to think what the local arts, culture, retail and hospitality landscapes would look like when the coronavirus pandemic was over.
In one small effort to support local, Thursday nights quickly became local takeaway night for my husband and I, a great excuse to grab a pizza and wine special from our neighbourhood small bar, which had diversified in response to its forced closure. We’d put our six-month-old to bed, order our feast, and settle in for the night.
Then, before I had time to even consider the art of sourdough, my inbox and Instagram feed became filled with creative solutions from artists and arts companies addressing the lack of live performance. Thursday night dinners became dinner and a show, as an explosion of online content transformed living rooms into theatres.
Smashing social and geographical boundaries
The fact is, since our baby was born, my husband and I hadn’t carved out time for just the two of us. When one of us would go to the theatre or to a gig, the other would stay home with the baby. But the swift response of both Australian and international artists and companies to COVID-19 restrictions has allowed us to enjoy the arts from home, together, and also increased our awareness of what was already on offer in the digital space.
As regular readers of Seesaw will be aware, there has been a proliferation of opportunities to watch theatre productions from Broadway to London’s West End, with the transformation of London National Theatre’s NT Live cinematic program to NT at Home streaming program a particular highlight.
Closer to home, West Australian indie theatre darlings, The Last Great Hunt, took their already sophisticated use of digital media in live performance one step further to create theatre that was specifically designed to be performed live and watched via a streaming platform. Bad Baby Jean, which streamed live on YouTube on 23 May (and remains available to re-stream now), was unlike anything I’d ever seen before. The cast and crew worked live in their own homes to create a lo-fi but highly intricate performance that involved both live action and multimedia. The live element was key and its importance not lost on The Last Great Hunt, who activated a viewer chat function, offered some pre-show chit chat and held a Q&A session after the show. That “alone together” catch phrase has been bandied around a lot these last few months, but it’s apt here as Bad Baby Jean was theatre intended to be simultaneously viewed individually and shared with others.
Nothing can replace live performance – we wouldn’t want it to – but this new space of live-streamed theatre carves out a fresh viewing experience and that’s exciting. The increased availability of streamable content, too, enables access to performances from outside one’s local area, breaking down geographical barriers for both artists and viewers, particularly those living in remote and isolated locations, who would normally have limited access to live performance opportunities.
On the other hand, the digital space is noisy and it’s often larger organisations with greater marketing budgets who can shout the loudest. Independent artists and small companies can only harness the current willingness to access digital content if viewers know about it.
Another concern, when it comes to digital content, is income. While it’s wonderful for audiences to be able to access free content, all artists and companies need to be able to make money from their work in order to survive. The issue of the dangers of expecting artists to provide free content needs an article all of its own; suffice to say it’s important to realise that the model is not sustainable long-term (or even short-term for some).
Bringing the arts to those who can’t leave home
The increase in production and distribution of online content also has the potential to improve opportunities for some artists and audiences with disabilities. “People with disabilities face barriers to cultural participation on a daily basis,” explains Ricky Arnold, Arts Services Director at DADAA. “In some ways, the general population have just had a taste of the isolation that many of our artists are exposed to consistently.”
As part of the many access and advocacy services it offers to those living with disability or a lived experience of mental illness, DADAA provides access to arts and culture. During Perth’s lockdown, the organisation’s regular artist workshops were moved to a digital space. For artists and audiences who find it a challenge to leave home, the ability to engage with the arts online is, potentially, a boon. Artists or audiences with anxiety and/or agoraphobia, for example, may benefit from either making or consuming art from home, says Arnold. “For some artists we’ve found the online environment has increased output and time spent on their artwork.”
This isn’t the case, however, for all DADAA’s artists. Those who require physical support to engage in their practice become dependent on the support services they have at home or in an accommodation centre. Arnold points out that the level of value placed (or not) on cultural participation sometimes prevents physical access to the arts and artistic practice being a priority in care.
That said, at DADAA, negotiating artistic practice during a pandemic has also illuminated the benefits that online engagement can have for artists’ mental and emotional well-being. “The online social group has proved to be an essential service that has helped keep our artists in a positive state of mind,” remarks Arnold.
Visual artist Fiona Williams describes DADAA’s online workshops as “a lifeline” during a lockdown. Williams is immunosuppressed and was feeling incredibly anxious, about both the virus and being confined to her home. Though initially sceptical about the workshops, she found it “incredibly reassuring and comforting to see the inside of the DADAA building: the familiar spaces, people and sounds, as well as connect with other participants.” She was thrilled, too, with the the work she produced during this period. “The experience was a reminder of how simple things can go a long way to improving both my artwork and my mental and emotional wellbeing,” she concludes.
Given that social connection is essential for recovery and mental health wellness, Arnold hopes that keeping this as an option for engagement will enable artists to remain connected to their peers if they become unwell or are otherwise unable to travel. “For DADAA, the fact we could stay in touch with our artists … and they could connect with their peers was vital. Isolation is deadly for some people, our workshops provided a … platform for conversation, creativity and fun, but more importantly care.”
A final word
While I’ve been feeding mind and body on Thursday nights, what I’ve missed the most during this period of closures has been activities to do with my child. My favourite parent and baby activity is ArtBubs at the Art Gallery of WA, an opportunity to enjoy the arts both with my baby and other adults, and I am hanging out for it to recommence.
Ultimately, online engagement cannot replace the live experience. The flurry of diverse, digital content has, however, opened up new ways to engage with the arts and I hope we can move forwards with a broader contemplation of how the arts can be created and enjoyed.
For more information about DADAA head to www.dadaa.org.au/
To watch The Last Great Hunt’s Bad Baby Jean head to www.thelastgreathunt.com/bad-baby-jean
Pictured top is Jeffery Jay Fowler in The Last Great Hunt’s online production of ‘Bad Baby Jean’.